Embodied Creative Multimodalities for Practicing EFL Pronunciation (by Janan Chan)

This fortnight we welcome back frequent guest blogger Janan Chan, who writes, ” I’m an incoming PhD student to the Department of Integrated Studies at McGill University. I was born in Hong Kong, grew up in Quebec, Canada, and I am currently living and teaching in Shanghai, China. From 2021-2024, I have continually modified the lesson materials provided to discuss real issues and to use language in creative, expressive and meaningful ways. My previous five BILD-LIDA blog posts explore my conflicts of identity in Shanghai; “hyper-Canadianness” in Shanghai’s Tim Hortonscyborg relations during Shanghai’s 2022 COVID-19 lockdownreal L2 use while skateboarding; and trangressive acts of writing by internet users in China.

This week’s blog post includes a linked audio file. Just click on the link below if you would like to hear the post read aloud. Scroll down to read the text.

A comment on my teacher evaluation haunted me. While other students praised my patience or provided simple feedback like, “He’s good”, one student wrote that I “did not have enough experience” but “has potential”. I felt like I was a teenager being scolded by well-intentioned parents. The latter comment was particularly devastating because this student noticed that I was not teaching to my full potential. And they were right.  

For the past three years, I have taught EFL in universities in Shanghai, China through a company which provides lesson materials and placements for international teachers. Though we are provided with materials, I have always modified them to better suit my students. In my first semester, one student commented that these provided lessons were better for children, a testament to how infantilizing ESL/EFL lessons, materials and textbooks can be. Although I was initially angry at my company, school and the “system” in general, I realized that anger was not enough; I had to take the initiative to make changes. Throughout my three years, I have been finding ways to differentiate between making changes which will help my students and changes which are only for my own pride. Sometimes, wanting to be perceived as a “legitimate” and serious teacher, I increased the difficulty in certain activities, overlooking the reality of my students’ linguistic backgrounds. Similar to a pedagogical “paradox” mentioned in Hall and Jerskey (2021), I struggled between forgetting and never forgetting that my students were multilingual learners. On one hand, I wanted to celebrate their writing, attend to their ideas and thoughts rather than overly focus on grammar and fixed linguistic structures. On the other hand, I realised that I could not forget that they were multilingual learners who would benefit from scaffolding and further support for English attainments which would have material consequences and “weight” (Arnold, 2021) in their lives.

The haunting comment was given anonymously by a student in a Pronunciation & Speaking course. The provided lesson materials focus on anticipating pronunciation errors and correcting them through drills and simple games. For example, one lesson focuses on differentiating between “th” sounds (/θ/ and /ð/) and other common mispronunciations, such as in “mouth” and “mouse”, through repetitive choral drilling and decontextualized listening exercises to identify pronunciation errors. From early education up to their university schooling as English majors, they have been exposed to these same mechanical drills. While I had convinced myself that standardised pronunciation is something students NEED to know, I wondered if this was the way to do it. 

Pronunciation drills on commonly mispronounced sounds
Right: “Happy Lunar New Year of The Mouse” by be_khe is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

I began thinking about how these classes could be taught differently with an emphasis on creative multimodalities and real communicative contexts while still focusing on clear pronunciation. The very classroom wherein these lessons took place had numbered cubicle-style desks bolted to the ground with individual computer screens, headphones and walls separating students. Despite these fixed row seating arrangements, I encouraged them to roleplay an interview. I scaffolded students by asking them to first write about three of their best qualities and supporting these qualities with stories from their lives. Then, I asked them to write five questions an interviewer would ask and tasked them with roleplaying either interviewers or interviewees. Students found fun in taking on a position of power and providing absurd yet poignant responses, such as happily accepting a dollar-a-month salary and loving unpaid overtime, mocking commonplace exploitative labour practices. Students were not passively receiving information and reciting standardised pronunciations but using language spontaneously, expressively and critically. 

Fixed cubicle-style desks in the classroom (Photo by author)

Encouraged by my students’ lively engagements while speaking, I transformed a dry prescribed lesson on intonation into one which mobilized students’ funds of knowledge. Based on the topic of fears, I posed these questions to my students: 1) What fears do you have? Why? What fears do you and your group members have in common? and 2) What fears did you have as a child? Do you still have them now? If not, how did you overcome them? Afterwards, I tasked them as a group to design a five-minute play about overcoming a fear. There were several guidelines: each group member must play a character and speak at least twice; groups must use a real story from their lives and discuss a fear a group member really has/had; and use intonation to express different emotions (such as a rising intonation when expressing fear). I added in as well a peer evaluation component where students would “grade” their classmates based on pronunciation, intonation, physicality (bodily expressions and eye contact), voice projection and story content

To my delight, my students were no longer bound behind their cubicles but occupying the front of the classroom, a space typically reserved for teachers, to perform their self-created characters and stories. Some students even ran out of one door and came in through another, pretending to be robbers or students being late for class. Many of them quite successfully used intonation to express emotions. One student timidly looked down and spoke sadly as they played a dejected high school student who had failed mathematics, then celebrated happily as their character eventually discovered a gift for English. Another student exploded with energetic emotion as they emphatically refused a plate of vegetables for dinner, garnering huge laughs from their classmates. 

I noticed one initially reticent and standoffish student (let’s call them Sky) slowly come out of their shell, motivated by an outspoken and extroverted group member. Their group’s discussions and planning became more and more energised as they constructed new ideas, stories and storytelling approaches. Importantly, I allowed them to use Chinese in small group discussions. While a colleague of mine whom they had the previous semester enforces English Only policies in class, I prefer translanguaging approaches (García & Li, 2014). For example, I started using what I call English Mostly for practice-focused conversations, and All Languages for meaning-driven discussions. In this way, I observed as they remained timid during the first few minutes of conversation, then slowly opened up to one another in Chinese and English. During this All Languages discussion phase, as they constructed their stories and decided how to tell them, I kept my distance too, making sure not to overwhelm them with my presence. While during some All Languages discussions I can often feel insecure about whether my students are on topic (since I cannot understand much Mandarin), I felt more assured this time as I heard students rehearse dialogue based on characters they were designing. I watched too as Sky became more animated with their group, feeling more and more invested in their role as a robber. 

Rather than drudging through another lesson on proper pronunciation, students used language in a dynamic and meaningful way to tell a story from their lives. Having a real audience of their peers was enough incentive to pronounce clearly, let alone intone emotions and embody various self-created characters. In the future, this activity could be bolstered with model texts in readings, scripts, videos of plays and more. A classroom audience of peers could be turned into an auditorium of schoolmates during school talent shows, making this language learning all the more real. I hope to always remember this haunting comment.


Arnold, L. R. (2021). Weighing English: Accounting for Power in Translingual Writing. In Silva, T. & Wang, Z. (Eds.), Reconciling Translingualism and Second Language Writing. (pp. 189-198). Routledge.

Hall, J. & Jerskey, M. (2021). Tear Down the Wall: Institutional Structures vs. Translingual Realities. In Silva, T. & Wang, Z. (Eds.), Reconciling Translingualism and Second Language Writing. (pp. 172-186). Routledge. 

García, O., & Li, W. (2014). Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism and Education. Palgrave Macmillan.

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